Friday, July 30, 2010

(Miami) Spice of Life

Yes, it's that time of year again - when diners go off in search of the elusive $35 dinner that does not involve the same boring roll call of chicken paillard, farmed salmon, and churrasco, served by sneering waitstaff who seem less than eager to get into the spirit. Or, to look at it another way, the season when line cooks go slowly insane, chanting "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" as they crank out the same couple of dishes over and over again, while the owners calculate food costs down to the penny in the hope they're at least coming out even, and servers put up with customers expecting to be treated like royalty for their meager $5 per person tip. Ahh, Miami Spice time!

We've been through this before here, but I'll briefly repeat my basic rules for navigating Miami Spice season: (1) there's no reason to bother with restaurants where a $35 menu is not a meaningful discount from their regular prices (though, of course, go to them if you like them; just don't do so because they're offering a Miami Spice menu); (2) the infamous chicken breast/farmed salmon/churrasco (or substitute short rib) "trifecta" is usually a tell; and (3) look for food that actually interests you. If a restaurant doesn't excite you the other 11 months of the year, it is unlikely there's going to be something really inspiring on their Spice menu. I like to see it as a chance to try some places, both new and old, that may not be in your "regular rotation," with limited financial commitment.

There's been some good Miami Spice chatter on the interwebs already, with New Times' Short Order playing "Deal or No Deal,"[1] and MRPR's highly amusing and mostly on-target "Open Letter on the Eve of Miami Spice."[2] So with that said, and with the disclaimer that I've not yet tried any of these menus nor indeed all of these restaurants, here are some Spice menus that looked intriguing to me. I may not have listed all the items, but have linked to each of the menus so you can peruse yourself; and keep in mind as well that many places change their Spice menus regularly, if for no other reason than to keep their line cooks from hurting themselves or others.

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Fin - Miami Design District

[Sorry, this place has closed]

I've come to realize that I am susceptible to the power of self-suggestion. When I was planning our upcoming trip to Spain, all I wanted to eat was Spanish food. We decided to take the kids to Maine next month, and all of a sudden I had hankerings for fresh, simple seafood. That's pretty much the mission statement of Fin, Chef Jonathan Eismann's latest restaurant to open in the Design District, which is where we ended up for dinner earlier this week. It was exactly what I was looking for.

We actually got something of a preview for Fin several months ago, when Chef Eismann used the space to host one of our Cobaya dinners back in December. It quietly opened for real about a month ago, occupying a small enclosed nook in the corner of Q American Barbecue on the west end of the Design District along Miami Avenue. Keeping track of Chef Eismann's restaurants has required a scorecard lately: through some wheeling and dealing with restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, his flagship Pacific Time has now closed, and after the summer is to become El Scorpion (the Mexican restaurant Chodorow opened up on South Beach just south of 5th Street); and the El Scorpion space on South Beach is going to become a second Q American Barbecue. Meanwhile, PizzaVolante is still cranking out good pies across the street from the original Q, which is staying put in its Miami Avenue location (which is the old Sheba spot, for those with a memory that goes back more than a year or two).[1]

Though Q is right next door, Fin feels like a different world, done up like an idealized Cape Cod bungalow with wide wood planks on the floor, simple wood and white-washed furnishings, soft blue and white stripes up the walls. It's small and intimate, probably seating no more than about 25-35 people at full capacity.

The menu is small too, featuring a very abbreviated selection of mostly fish and seafood that apparently will be constantly rotating, depending on what Chef Eismann sources at any particular time. And I do mean short: maybe five appetizers, about the same number of entrées, all almost exclusively piscine, some vegetable sides to choose from, a few desserts.

Dinners start with a complimentary amuse, this time a small bowl of popcorn shrimp (for those who miss Pacific Time, you will be reminded of the hot and sour shrimp snack) with a spicy remoulade, along with a tall shot of a tomato-lobster gazpacho (nice, bright and balanced tomato flavor, though the lobster got lost in the mix). From there, I led off with a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell (Wellfleets? I forget), served simply with a wedge of lemon, some Tabasco, and a simple mignonette. These were some of the best oysters I've had locally, expertly shucked, fresh, briny and clean-tasting.

Mrs. F started with a corn chowder, which curiously did not include any seafood, but which was still loaded with flavor and precisely seasoned. Another carry-over for Pacific Time fans is a variation on the grouper cheeks with red curry and bananas, which here showed up on the Fin menu with shrimp.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

NAOE in Pictures - A Year Later

It was a little more than a year ago that I made my first, revelatory visit to NAOE. I've been back several times since then, and each meal has been a bit different, but just as good. I brought the camera for my most recent visit, something of a one-year anniversary celebration. You can see the complete flickr set here.


The bento featured hog snapper sashimi with shiso and seaweed (the snapper freshly caught by a spearfishing friend that morning); scorpionfish (also locally caught) two ways, fried, and braised with apricot and sprinkled with white poppy seed; a silky custard with aji and shiitake mushrooms; baby carrots, gingko nuts; slow-braised, falling-apart tender pork jowl with parsnip purée and mustard sauce; bamboo rice, daikon pickles; butternut squash and miso soup.

snapper sashimi
snapper sashimi

scorpionfish, aji & shiitake custard
scorpionfish, aji, shiitake custard

As always, after the bento, a procession of nigiri.

salmon nigiri
scottish salmon nigiri

shira ebi nigiri
shira ebi nigiri

scallop nigiri
scallop nigiri

Chef Cory brings in live scallops and prepares them to order. You could see the scallop muscle still quivering after he sliced it.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sanibel-Captiva Restaurant Rundown (Part 2)

Sometimes the best things in life are the simplest ones. It's not exactly on the level of a dining mantra for me, perhaps more of a last resort. But after some mixed experiences in Sanibel and Captiva, we definitely found that we ate better when we kept things simple.

Over Easy Café

Case in point: the Over Easy Café. It's a modest place decorated in a cheerful provençal color scheme overlaid with recurring examples of a chicken motif, but the decor is not the story here. Rather, it's the hearty, straight-ahead, and well-prepared food that made me happy. I tweeted during our trip "Provided you don't get too clever, it is well near impossible to fuck up a club sandwich." Over Easy Café didn't. Sliced turkey, fresh lettuce and tomato, bacon that's still warm off the griddle, crisp but not shatteringly so, just enough mayo, nice crisp toast. It's a simple pleasure, but one that really hit the spot. A pasta salad for a side wasn't a mere afterthought, but was taken on a little Mediterranean spin with black olives, bits of red pepper and crumbled feta.

The kids thoroughly enjoyed their pancakes (not least because they were getting to eat pancakes for lunch, but still, they were nicely fluffy and light). A fruit cup featured fresh, sweet fruit, as if somebody had actually made the effort to taste and make sure the melon and berries were ripe before throwing them together. And that's what I enjoyed about the Over Easy Café: it tasted like food made by people who cared that it tasted good. We actually tried to make a return visit for breafkast, intrigued by such items as a Reuben Benedict (English muffin topped with corned beef, thousand island dressing, poached eggs and hollandaise). Unfortunately, we're clearly not the first to discover the place - there was an hour-long wait for a table. Maybe the trick is to sneak in on off-hours (open 7am - 8pm, with breakfast served till 2:30pm).

Over Easy Café
630 Tarpon Bay Road
Sanibel, FL 33957

Over Easy Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Point Counterpoint - updated

This will be a short one. Yesterday, Shola Olunloyo, an opinionated and thought-provoking Philadelphia chef who is in the process of opening a restaurant called Speck, put up a post noting "We are desperately trying to find a reason why we should not cook virtually every piece of meat in this restaurant sous-vide." And the same day, chefs Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of the creative hive that is Ideas in Food, though not apparently in response to Shola, provided an answer:

Sure, functionality, speed and consistency are important, but there is something special about a gorgeous piece of meat (or two) cooked properly in a salt dusted skillet; it's fat renders into the pan and the constant turning (a la McGee) allows for uniform cooking and a beautiful crust. A quick pan sauce made with wine and butter, finished with fresh herbs snipped from the garden and a warm rest (we used a pyrex pan with a lid) resulted in different textures and flavors playing off one another with delicious results. The depth and consistency of the crust changes with each bite and the inner meat is supple and juicy. It may take a little more effort by the cook but every so often old school is the only way to go.


So how do you like your steak?

UPDATED: It's been suggested (by Chef Olunloyo, anyway) that I've either  predetermined a conclusion or attempted to create a non-existent controversy with this post. Yes, internet conversations can be slightly odd. So since Chef Olunloyo has not posted the comment I added on his site (which is always a great read), I will try to duplicate it here.

I have no predetermined conclusion on the subject nor any desire to create controversy. I certainly didn't call anything "boiled meat in a bag," and indeed, in context, it ought to be clear I'm no enemy of sous vide cookery. If I'm guilty of anything, it's perhaps an excess of brevity, or stated more simply: bad writing. The fact that I couldn't initially find a good picture of any sous-vide cooked steak (a deficiency I've now remedied, though the photo quality is still suspect) also may have suggested a taking of sides. But it really was intended as nothing other than a simple inquiry as to technique and preference.

Personally, unless I'm starving and iron-depleted, I usually find that eating a bigger cut of steak can become monotonous, and so the textural contrasts of which Alex and Aki speak are indeed something I often find desirable. On the other hand, in other circumstances (and Chef Olunloyo's post does make clear he is talking about skinnier, more flavorful cuts - skirt, deckle, hanger) I may well agree that sous vide cooking with a quick sear to finish is the way to go.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Chow Down Grill - Surfside

[sorry, this restaurant has closed; but check out Josh's Deli, at the same spot with the same owner, which I've reviewed here]

I paid my first visit to Chow Down Grill the first week that they opened, about a month ago. This is often a somewhat dicey proposition, even more so for a place that is as unabashedly D.I.Y. as Chow Down Grill. And sure enough, the A/C wasn't working, they'd just gotten their license and hadn't stocked up on beer yet - but the food showed real promise. I went back recently to try it again. The good news is that the A/C is cranking, the beer is well-stocked and cold, and the food delivers on that promise, providing some interesting and well-executed spins on old-school Chinese classics (with some occasional straying into Vietnamese territory).

The chef behind Chow Down is Joshua Marcus, who spent some time in a number of Miami kitchens before venturing out on his own. His resumé includes China Grill, BLT Steak, Timo, and the now defunct North One 10, and it seems he's picked up some tricks at each of them. But Chow Down Grill does not aspire to be like those places, and instead sets out to adapt and update Chinese-American dishes with fresh ingredients and some modern twists in a budget-friendly format. The menu he's put together is fairly short but sweet: a selection of about a half-dozen dumplings for starters; a salad, a couple soups; a choice of a few banh mi style sandwiches; entrées with a choice of protein combined with a choice from about a half-dozen different sauce/vegetable pairings; and fried rice or noodle sides to round out your meal.

Those dumplings are a great place to start. Shaped like oversized potstickers, they come four to an order ($6), and the couple we've sampled were unorthodox but good. A striking black wrapper, colored with squid ink, surrounded a finely diced shrimp filling brightened up with fennel and corn, while a minced chicken dumpling came wrapped in a vibrant basil-green skin. Equally satisfying were the wontons, slightly smaller and more delicate, which came with a peanut sauce that carried a nice undercurrent of spice.[*] I'm not big on salads, but I still found myself picking repeatedly at Mrs. F's "Chow Down Chop" ($8 + $3 to add chicken, shrimp or beef). It's a spin on the iconic Wolfgang Puck Chinese Chicken Salad, with a mix of fresh, perky Napa cabbage, onion, corn, cucumber, carrot, radish,cilantro and slices of mango, all dressed in a brightly flavored chile lime vinaigrette.

It was a bit of a mystery to me why the sandwiches are not called what they clearly are: banh mi, the classic Vietnamese sandwich. Chef Marcus explained: his girlfriend is Vietnamese, and won't let him call them "banh mi" because they're not sufficiently authentic. (This also explains why the "House Special Noodle Soup" is not called "pho"). Whatever it's called, the 24-hour braised beef ($8.50), meltingly tender like a pot roast, makes for a great sandwich. A pâté aioli is an inspired way to combine a couple of the traditional banh mi components and adds even more richness, offset by the fresh flavors of the pickled carrot, cucumber, radish, jalapeño, onion and cilantro.

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Sanibel - Captiva Restaurant Rundown (Part 1) - The Mad Hatter, Key Lime Bistro

We took a little expedition over the July 4 holiday weekend[1] to Captiva Island on the west coast of Florida. I grew up in South Florida, but have never spent much time exploring the west coast of the state. Just a few hours' drive provided a welcome change of scenery and atmosphere, with even the intermittent rains bringing with them the benefit of some cooler weather. As for the food? Well, we'll get to that.

Sanibel and Captiva Islands have an entertaining history: originally home to Calusa Indians, they were discovered by Ponce de Leon while searching for the Fountain of Youth, then later become a haven for pirates, including one Jose Gaspar, who supposedly held female prisoners captive on the "Isle de las Captivas" for ransom. In this century, the islands have been a vacation retreat for the rich and famous, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and more recently, the artist Robert Rauschenberg.[2] Though Sanibel and Captiva offer many reasonably budget-friendly vacationing options, Captiva clearly also retains its standing as a destination for the über-wealthy, with a string of dozens of mansions right on top of the Gulf of Mexico (or, for the mere ultra-wealthy, on the east side of the island overlooking Pine Island Sound). It's the kind of place where the word "compound" doesn't seem out of place, where vacation homes costing millions of dollars bear goofy names like "Captured" or "Orange-u-Glad."[3]

Aside from being a haven for pirates and plutocrats, Sanibel and Captiva are also a natural haven, with major portions of the islands preserved as wildlife sanctuary. Although the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has had an economic impact on the area, with tourists avoiding the area out of fear of the oil hitting Florida's coast, the good news is that Sanibel and Captiva have not seen any environmental impact. For better or worse, if you didn't read the news you could easily be completely oblivious to the havoc and devastation that have already occurred only hundreds of miles away. We spent one morning kayaking in the mangroves and saw more than a half dozen osprey, herons, egrets, and even a couple of roseate spoonbills.

Anyway, this isn't a travelogue, it's a food blog. I've been reading the English food critic Jay Rayner's book "The Man Who Ate the World," and one of the lessons he draws in it from dining around the globe is that great food is often wasted on those who can afford it. If it's any consolation, it appears the converse is also true: the rich also apparently pay lots of money for very mediocre food as well. It wasn't all bad, but it sure wasn't easy finding a good meal either. In the hope of helping others navigate this culinary minefield, or perhaps get some advice for how we could have done so better ourselves, here is our rundown, in two parts:

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Friday, July 2, 2010

Josh's Big Fat Free Wedding

A couple days ago I started writing a post which led off with the following line: "Not to go all Ozersky on you, but I just ate a couple free meals from a chef who I idolize and now I'm going to tell you how great there were." Then I realized: (1) such an admission might compromise my credibility with readers; and (2) some of you who do not compulsively follow the national culinary interwebs might not even know what I was talking about. Plus, Blogger was refusing to load the photos from my freebie meals.

So first, a recap, though the story has been covered extensively and others have had many smart things to say about it already. Josh Ozersky, a/k/a "Mr. Cutlets," is presently the master of ceremonies of Ozersky.TV and a regular food writer for, and formerly the online food editor for New York Magazine, editor of Grubstreet NY and Citisearch NY, grand poobah of The Feedbag, and restaurant critic for Newsday. A couple weeks ago, he penned a piece in entitled "Great Wedding Food: Tips from a Newly Married Critic."

The premise of the article was more than a little goofy: catered food sucks, so instead, why not have some of the top restaurant chefs in your city provide the food for your wedding? Ozersky proceeded to describe how, instead of having a caterer for his recent wedding, he somehow managed to convince several of the top chefs in New York City to each cook something after he "cherry-picked my favorite dishes from half a dozen restaurants": mezes and hummus from Orhan Yegen of Sip Sak; salad from Ed Schoenfeld of Red Farm, bread from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, lasagna from Michael White of Alto, Marea and Convivio, moussaka from Michael Psilakis of Kefi, smoked tofu from Doug and Laura Keiles of Ribs Within, steak and scallops from Ed Brown of Ed's Chowder House, wedding cake from Heather Bertinetti, pastry chef for Michael White.

Broad generalizations such as "most caterers aren't really good cooks" infuriated people who make a living in the catering business (plus just seemed stupid and ill-informed, if for no other reason than that many restaurant chefs, even very highly regarded ones, also run catering operations); while precious statements like "There are restaurants all around New York City that are objects of my special passion - why wouldn't I want their best stuff at my wedding?" and advice like "Forget the caterer! Plug directly into the source of your hometown's culinary delights, and happiness, enduring and radiant, will immediately follow" sounded distinctly like a 21st century version of "Let them eat cake." The notion that any shmoo could somehow command a half-dozen of the city's top chefs to cook up a little something for 200 people at their wedding just seemed a bit ridiculous.

The story prompted Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice to raise some pointed questions in "An Open Letter to Josh Ozersky": who paid for all this bounty? Why was there no disclosure of that information? If it was free, would chefs really provide such things gratis with no expectation at all of anything in return? And do the circumstances call into question the credibility of Ozersky's over-the-top praise for the food, to say nothing of his general advice on wedding food?

It didn't surprise anyone in the know that Ozersky, a notorious freeloader and hobnobber with celebrity chefs, didn't pay for any of the food (On the other hand, readers of with a more casual interest in food would have had absolutely no reason to harbor such suspicions). In fact, he didn't even pay for the venue, the Rooftop Bar atop the Empire Hotel, which was provided for free by Jeffrey Chodorow - the restaurateur behind places including Ed's Chowder House and Red Farm (a restaurant that has not yet opened from which Ozersky somehow managed to "cherry-pick" a "favorite dish"). When New York Times' Diner's Journal picked up the story, they estimated that the cost of such an event would range between $200 to $500 per person.

Ozersky and issued a "clarification," prompted, according to Ozersky, by the notion that Sietsema's open letter "makes me look unethical rather than dumb." In it, he attempted to explain that some his closest friends are chefs and "when they asked me what I wanted for a wedding present, instead of a crystal decanter that I would never look at, I told them to just cook some lasagna or bake a few loaves of bread that I could share with other friends." (I will not bother dissecting the preposterousness of that statement, as it's been very effectively done already by New York Journal in "Josh Ozersky Still Doesn't Get It"). After a "mea culpa" for not being "more explicit about the fact that I did not pay for any of their delicious contributions" (yes, saying nothing at all leaves plenty of room to be "more explicit"), Ozersky attempted a bit of defense, noting that "I am not an anonymous critic and I don't review restaurants for TIME (or anyone else)" (never mind the "Tips from a Newly Married Critic" headline). To the New York Times, he protested that "Bob makes it sound like a sinister plot to extort lasagna."

Suffice to say that "unethical" and "dumb" are hardly mutually exclusive.

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